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Spotlight: Nonclassical at 10

Gabriel Prokofiev

Gabriel Prokofiev

As Gil Scott-Heron told us, the revolution will not be televised. That is certainly the case in classical music, but moves are afoot to alter the foundations of how it is experienced first-hand.

For hundreds of years the ‘recital’ format has been king, where an audience files dutifully into a grand building, takes up an allocated seat number and sits, enclosed, to listen to the music of their choice.

Gabriel Prokofiev, composer and head of the Nonclassical label, has been exploring alternatives to that experience for the last 10 years, and a new book, We Break Strings by Thom Andrews and Dimitri Djuric, documents the endeavours of Nonclassical and other significant players in that time.

Prokofiev – grandson of celebrated Russian composer Sergei, son of the artist Oleg – runs Nonclassical from the top floor of a block of studios in Cambridge Heath, London. His studio is the very essence of a composer at work, with wires everywhere and the unmistakeable hum of creativity, a cosy retreat from the City’s rain and bustle down below. For 30 minutes we use it for an enthusiastic appraisal of the label’s first decade, beginning with its roots, some of which trail back to student days.

“I suppose some of the ideas behind it connect to something I was in at York University, called nerve8,” he begins. “That was done with four other electroacoustic composers – Dylan Menzies, John Richards, Tim Ward and Nick Fells. We did electroacoustic concerts in unusual venues with a DIY diffusion rig, where we all brought a pair of studio monitors and wired them together to make a 10-speaker system. It worked really well and went to show you didn’t need state of the art, expensive gear – just good ears. We even used that mixing desk for diffusing” – he points – “the one behind you, that battered old thing! It worked really well. We played at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, and an over-60s drop-in centre. So I guess when I was at York I was in to that sort of thing.”

Gabriel, never one to pin himself down musically, started looking further afield. “I took a few years out of the classical music scene, and got more attuned to what was going on in London with club life and live music outside of classical. I’d already been into that as a teenager, being into bands, and so when I came back to putting on classical events I had a whole load of new experiences and a clearer understanding of putting on club nights. I just applied it to classical music.”

“I got more attuned to what was going on in London with club life and live music…I just applied it to classical music”

As he progressed, he discovered the ground opening up in front of him. “It was a massive gap! I still think there is a huge void, and generally in music I’ve seen we are in a changing situation at the moment. There are definitely lots of cool electronic nights going on, but in terms of actual live performed music, particularly classical music, there is the whole live recital situation, which tends to be more traditional, and then there’s stuff that is happening at universities. There was nothing less formal for younger composers and musicians at all, just a massive void. Their only situation was in the colleges, and you just don’t get a normal audience there; it’s a completely false and isolated situation. It was nice to bring out composers and performers to more accessible and normal gig venues. I still think there is a lot of room for more of that. The scene has definitely increased, so that’s why when looking back at the last ten years of Nonclassical it’s really exciting to see all different types of informal classical nights happening in London. That’s when this book, We Break Strings, came together.”

The book, mostly in black and white, is a vivid document charting the progress of Prokofiev and Nonclassical, but also opening doors to gigs and club nights outside of those venues perceived to be ‘normal’. “It is a really in depth document,” says Gabriel approvingly. “Thom Andrews has been incredibly thorough with the text, and he has interviewed a lot of different people, giving analysis to all the different implications of the scene as well. It’s very interesting.”

An early recruit to the label was the vocal ensemble Juice, an accapella trio whose reach has carried them to the Roundhouse, Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 and Classic FM. They are first and foremost experimental, but an adventurous approach extends to radical interpretations of modern pop songs, such as Erasure’s A Little Respect. Soprano Sarah Dacey was also at York University, where the group came together.

“We were inspired by the arrival of John Porter of the Hilliard Ensemble, and also realised we were the only female trio in contemporary music. We first met Gabriel Prokofiev at York, but I think Kerry (Andrew, the alto in the trio) had more run-ins with him. He was a tall, gangly figure who liked to talk, but we didn’t get on to the label until we got to London and knew the Elysian Quartet” (who play Prokofiev’s First String Quartet on the first Nonclassical release). “I think he was a bit tentative for the reasons everyone can be, because the label’s quite specific.”

Yet the move was a success. “Kerry is a first study composer so she wrote a piece, and encouraged us to write more stuff. There is some medieval music we can do as a trio but even then you have to adapt, because three part harmony is difficult to write for.” The pop arrangements followed soon after. “We really wanted that to happen. We did a callout to everybody we knew, and somebody said we should do a Rihanna song. We all went ‘Eeurgh!’ as one at the suggestion, but then we thought we should do it. Even now I find it a little bit creepy, it creeps me out. We worked with Majiker, who arranged Only Girl In The World just after the Chris Brown thing, and we found the lyrics really horrific – ‘I’m going to let you do what you want’, and so on. So we didn’t, ironically!”

The group have equal input into the songs that go on to disc. “It works well,” she says, “because you record some stuff and it doesn’t work, but then someone fights for a piece and says it should go on. We record it all in one take to give it a live feel.”

A principal strength of the Nonclassical label would appear to be its flexibility, illustrated in its diverse list of artists. “I just wish we could release more”, says Prokofiev regretfully, “it’s a question of capacity really. It started off as just me, and then I got a bigger team. I was running another label at the same time, Nonstop Recordings, which then became StopStart. I got a label manager for that, Dave Halliwell, who was more to do with the electronic and indie side of things, but then he started running Nonclassical as well. Since then I’ve had different people coming on board. But with the amount of time to do a release properly, it’s very difficult – I wish we could do more.”

“Some people have preciousness with remixes, but I would say what is composition? It’s a natural extension…”
– Sarah Dacey of the Juice Vocal Ensemble

A key feature of Nonclassical releases is a set of remixes to complement the original pieces. “It’s a great idea,” says Dacey, “because indie and pop labels have been doing that for a while. It’s good for us, too, because you can get tired of the same sound if it’s a vocal trio. Some people have preciousness with remixes, but I would say what is composition? It’s a natural extension. It’s flattering for people who’ve had their piece done, and it has inspired other people like Meredith Monk.”

Another trait of the label is its close attention to artwork. “If you look at a lot of classical labels”, Prokofiev says, “they tend to have a ‘house design’ that is not particularly exciting. Taking Naxos as an example, you know that they’re going for this kind of cheap and cheerful thing. You know you’re going to get a cheaper price for them, and the recordings tend to be pretty good, but if you don’t know anything about classical music, and you see a Naxos CD, nothing about the way it’s designed is going to make you at all curious about it, it looks very unimaginative.”

“All the labels are trying to reach out but they still fall into the temptations of classical musicians in long ball gowns”

He sees it as a widespread problem. “All the labels are trying to reach out but they still fall into the temptations of classical musicians in long ball gowns, the typical iconography of classical music that still pervades. Even with some of the more contemporary labels it feels like they’ve just chosen an image from Getty Images, one that’s slightly blurred with a bit in focus, in a section called ‘Contemporary’ or ‘Edgy’, you know? We’re actually trying to do album covers in the way an electronic or indie label would do, and trying to think of something that connects with the artist or the music. Several covers of my stuff have had a city scape that shows where the piece was composed or recorded, trying to make a statement that the music is from contemporary London or something, not from some cut off university department or a forest or whatever the cliché is.”

His words enhance the feeling that Nonclassical is a people facing label. “Definitely – and that is something I feel strongly about. It’s scary when you think of the amount of time composers and musicians are putting into a performance or a recording, and then it’s hardly reaching anybody. It seems like such a shame, and it’s not even fair on the public! If a human being is putting that much work into something, and it’s not being shared, the audience are missing out on someone’s endeavours as well. You’ve got to try and be communicative, and there are so many little hang-ups in the classical world – this feeling of purism, and that it’s got to be very serious and correct, done in an academically respectable way. That instantly creates a barrier for a lot of the public so you’ve got to find a more approachable and human face to it, to be more natural and more honest, and not hide behind academic programme notes or anything like that.”

“We’ve got to try and encourage people, to be welcoming. If audiences get bombarded with a set of rules, you’re already off on a bad start.”

With this statement he would seem to be in agreement with Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who has recently voiced his approval to a relaxed concert approach, where people can stand and move around. “From the very beginning the Nonclassical nights wanted to address that,” says Prokofiev. “You have to feel free. If you’re stuck in a seat, you lose some of your autonomy as a member of the public, and already that’s putting you in a not very natural position. Maybe at the cinema people are used to it, but it’s a different sort of experience. With a classical concert if it’s challenging music and you’re stuck in a chair, maybe you need a break or a drink – whereas if you go to an art gallery, if you don’t like a picture you can just walk to the next one. If people know they’ve got choice then they can commit more. It doesn’t mean everyone’s going to run away, but if you know you’ve got the choice to leave you’re more relaxed and open. We’re not the first to try that – I read about Boulez doing something similar in New York in the 1970s! And at the Proms of course, everyone in the arena stands, and I think that’s one of the secrets to its success. In a way it’s a no brainer, especially with new music, where we don’t have a big audience. We’ve got to try and encourage people, to be welcoming. If audiences get bombarded with a set of rules, you’re already off on a bad start.”

The name ‘Nonclassical is apt, then – less rebellion, more a step to one side that avoids the trappings of classification. “We’re not going to follow the classical tradition,” says Prokofiev. “I know there are some people who ask why we have to be ‘anti classical’, but it’s not. It depends on your personal outlook. Some people might take it as a negative comment, but it’s not meant to be. The word ‘classical’ is still there, but it’s just saying not doing it in the traditional way. It’s something that was missing completely and it’s really important that it’s happening now.”

Of a number of events taking place to mark the Nonclassical decade, a Saturday night at BLOC catches the eye – with Nathan Fake headlining a program that features Gabriel Prokofiev’s own compositions as well as Nonclassical DJs. “Since the 1990s there are more electronic producers who are drawn to the more interesting and unusual sounds,” he says. “They enjoy the freedom you have working in a studio, and as artists they have a freer outlook and approach, and there starts to be an overlap. One of the big things with classical music is that it deals with larger scale forms, and it tends not to be based on a straight, verse-chorus type structure, it’s more to do with more developmental, often more linear in the way the structure works. When you have electronic producers with a more imaginative approach to structure you then find they start to be similarities. The interest in sound and timbre, not just about the hook or riff, just enjoying the sound, that’s where the two worlds start to have more in common. Then you find the public are more into the electronic music, and so they’re more excited. It’s opened them up to an approach they didn’t think was possible.”

When Prokofiev himself DJs, does he use beats? “I do sometimes – there have been certain situations. When you get into a faster, more regular tempo I might do a tiny bit of beat mixing, because that creates an interesting moment and a journey. It is nice in that respect to have a tempo flow, but I would never stay in it for an hour or something, I would break it up. It’s nice to have beats when you’re DJing, because it creates more energy and momentum.”

“I had grown up in bands where you write songs, gig them, and make an album. So when I got back into classical music my aim was always, “I’ll release an album!” which isn’t actually the classical approach.”

As a composer, Prokofiev has taken great inspiration from the label. “It has really been beneficial, releasing my stuff. That was why I started the label, because I wanted to release my First String Quartet. I had grown up in bands where you write songs, gig them, and make an album. So when I got back into classical music my aim was always, “I’ll release an album!” which isn’t actually the classical approach.”

He found the reach of his music immediately amplified. “As soon as you have stuff on an album that’s available worldwide, suddenly you find your music reaching all sorts of people. With contemporary dance I’ve had stuff choreographed in Germany, Canada, USA and Romania, mostly from people just coming across the albums. If it hadn’t been available nobody would have known. A lot of classical composers are really missing out by not having their stuff released, and I’d encourage people to self-release, come to Nonclassical or form a collective. Unfortunately the record industry, because it’s shrunk, has less independent record labels now, and they’re needed more than ever!”

Recording other composer’s works has inspired him too. “On Tansy Davies’ album I was the recording engineer, producer and mixer, for reasons of finance – but it gave me a chance to really get close to the music and be in loads of sessions. You get a deeper knowledge of another composer’s work. With the remixes I generally do one or two remixes for every Nonclassical release, and that creates another relationship with the music. That has a big influence on my own work.”

Prokofiev has also enjoyed exposure at the BBC Proms, with performances of his Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, and most recently the Violin Concerto. “It’s interesting, and I guess it’s quite fluid. Sometimes people will hear about me as a composer and find the label, or sometimes through the club nights people don’t realise I’m actually involved. I’m conscious of wanting Nonclassical to be its own thing, and the first album was my string quartet but the second one was John Richards and then the pianist Genia, then me, then Nick Ryan and John Matthias. I don’t want my work to dominate, and right now I’m actually trying to take a step back because my own composition work is getting so busy. I have very strong feelings and ideas about how it should work but I am trying to let go and get other people on board. To attract more people it needs ideas from different minds, to broaden its appeal.”

As part of that aim Nonclassical have an upcoming global night, with performances streamed to and from London to Canada, Brazil, Switzerland and New York. “That’s really exciting,” he exclaims. “I remember 20 years ago when the internet was still quite new, and I read about a place you could jam with other musicians through MIDI. This night is looking to bring together five territories, and then what we’ve done specifically is put this competition on, a call for composers to produce new pieces especially for this. We’ve got at least 50 people who have entered. Some people are exploring the political idea behind this global communication. Is it all going to be totally in hitch? We might have some technical glitches, so we’ll see, but it could be really fun to do these exchanges.”

“A lot of people want to do these nights but are stuck in the tradition”

He sheds detail on one of their Brazilian partners. “In Sao Paulo there’s an organisation called Música Estranha (Strange Music) and they’ve got a similar philosophy to Nonclassical. Even in Brazil, with an amazing live music tradition, when it comes to contemporary classical suddenly they’re also in the same European academic mind set generally. They also need to get classical music out of the institutions. One of the other partners is the Canadian Music Centre, and I did a Nonclassical event there in January, I was composer in residence at Toronto University for a couple of weeks. A lot of people want to do these nights but are stuck in the tradition, and don’t realise how easy it is to step out and do something like that. It’s really good for us all to do it together, and there is a movement – and that’s how these things grow, when the public see it happening and have more confidence in the scene.”

Nonclassical at Bloc, 39, Autumn Street, Hackney, takes place on Saturday 15 November, with Nathan Fake performing alongside soloists from Multi-Story Orchestra, Klavikon on prepared piano, John Richards and the Dirty Electronics Orchestra with Mute Synth, Tom Richards with an improvised electronics set and Gabriel Prokofiev with the very best Nonclassical DJs. Tickets here.

Meanwhile, Nonclassical Global takes place at a secret East London location in Cambridge Heath on Wednesday November 26, with live London performances from the Juice Vocal Ensemble, Thomas Gould, Tempest Flute Trio and Nonclassical DJs. There will be live link-ups with Canada, Brazil, Switzerland and New York, plus intercontinental live performances of competition winning compositions, scored for a unique ensemble spanning the five cities that are hosting the event. More at the official websites for Nonclassical and Gabriel Prokofiev.

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